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Permie of the Year: Mandy Milburn

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Mandy’s selfless work earned her Pip’s top gong. Photo By Ben Broadwith

Dedicated to building resilience and food security through respectful community connections, Pip’s 2021 Permie of the Year recipient personifies the three key ethics.

‘Open hearted’ is how the 2021 Pip Permie of the Year Award recipient Mandy Milburn describes herself and, when you look at where the 49-year-old has found herself after a relatively tumultuous life, it’s pretty hard to argue.

These days, Mandy leads the team running the Kununurra Community Garden located in the eastern reaches of Western Australia’s Kimberley ranges. Just 45 km from the Northern Territory border, it’s a relatively small and remote community and its hot, semi-arid climate is extreme. She co-launched the Kununurra Community Kitchen five years ago and recently merged the two under the same not-for-profit banner, and now uses both entities to support, influence and nurture real and positive change within her diverse community.

Healing Desert

A decade ago, however, Mandy was in a very different place. She’d spent the previous ten years in London co-promoting a popular underground party where she eventually developed an addiction to the drug ketamine.

‘I couldn’t get away from it, I had to get out, so I came back to Perth in 2011,’ she said. And from there it’s been a journey of self-healing, one that eventually led her to the remote corner of Western Australia.

‘When I returned, I went raw foody for a year, obtained a diploma in meditation, colour therapy and learnt other energy-work practices,’ she explains. ‘Then in 2015, I decided I wanted to understand the Indigenous Australian culture a bit more and connect with the desert, so I went into the community of Balgo and was a carer for some senior women elders,’ she explains. ‘It was a challenging, but beautiful learning experience. Standing on ancient land and being present with the women was extremely powerful – I really resonated with the country and the people.

‘To go back to Perth from Balgo, you’ve got to fly through Kununurra – there’s only a mail plane that flies into Balgo. So I passed through and I came across one of the guys who initiated the community garden, he was hosting a Permaculture Design Course (PDC). I didn’t need to be anywhere, so I stayed to do that.’

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A journey of self-healing has led Mandy to Kununurra’s community gardens. Photo By Ben Broadwith

Start Where You Are

Despite the remoteness, the oppressive heat and the wet season’s downpours and the challenging environment, Mandy used her newfound permaculture knowledge and respect for nature to rediscover herself and all the things she has to offer.

‘And while I wasn’t confident to go out and design someone’s garden, I had the community garden as my anchor,’ she says. ‘I thought I’m just gonna get on with it. Be hands-on every day – the observing, the responding, the engaging with community. I focused on just building relationships in a slow and small way and it went from there. Within two months I’d written my first grant – I’d never done that before – and we’ve probably had nine or ten successful grants since.’

According to Mandy, about half of Kununurra’s 5000-strong population are Indigenous.

‘But they’re not all local Miriwoong people, we have people that come in from all over the Kimberley. They’re all from different Aboriginal cultures and that can create a lot of unique challenges. You’ve got these people forced to live with each other who typically wouldn’t because of closeddown communities and other factors. And unfortunately, although there is beauty and strength in the community, when it comes to domestic violence and youth suicide statistics, we have some of the highest in the world.’

Fair Share

That first and successful grant she wrote eight weeks after arriving in Kununurra was a crime-prevention program to host garden-based activities in the school holidays.

‘We have a lot of crime because the young people get bored,’ she explains. ‘So when I moved here, I sat with the elders and I listened, and because I’m open hearted and honest, they really valued that. They could see there was no hidden agendas or anything.’

The school holiday program kicked off in December 2016 and Mandy, along with a friend, initiated a soup kitchen to coincide with the program.

‘So after those five or six weeks when the holidays ended, the other person had had enough, but I thought there was real merit in continuing the program,’ says Mandy, who has since gone on to host a free feed every Sunday for the last five years.

‘Our fifth birthday was 16 December and we haven’t missed one Sunday in that whole time,’ she says proudly, adding her group of volunteers provide between 50 and 70 meals each week. Mandy explains that everything she does is centred around four basic fundamentals: food, fire, connection and community.

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A lot of what Mandy passes on revolves around the importance of getting your hands in the soil. Photo By Ben Broadwith

People Care

‘Every fortnight during school terms, we have the Aboriginal Families and First Educators playgroup come in and we use permaculture in a way … we sit around and we yarn, I walk everyone around the garden and learn about growing food, we smell, we taste, we talk, and we build strong relationships.

‘The garden is a little sanctuary, really. It’s in the middle of town, we’ve got these beautiful big mango trees in the middle that you can sit under and it drops five degrees if not more, it’s a really beautiful place. And we’ve got elders past and present who have painted in there and who have sat in there – a lot of love goes in there.

‘When we’re planting seeds, we’re talking about how it could also be planting the seeds of our hopes and dreams. And do those dreams just happen or do we have to nurture those dreams, do we have to look after them, do we have to water them, do we have to make sure they have enough sunlight to grow, that kind of communication.

‘And the same goes with the fortnightly kindergarten kids. And weekly, the Kununurra Kids Early Learning Bush School comes in. So I engage a lot of the little people, but there’s still work to do with the schools.

‘A previous kindergarten teacher told me 2021 booked out early largely due to the community garden program and the improvement they were seeing in children’s development, cognitive functions and social behaviours. The garden is a remedy for for a range of special needs.’

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Mandy’s partner Eli is a great supporter of what she’s doing. Photo By Ben Broadwith

Fighting Spirit

The more you listen to Mandy’s story, the more you’re moved by her selfless work. You quickly get a sense that she’s been energised by a deep spiritual awakening that has been the result of her journey of self healing. Which is why when she reveals she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis half-way through 2021, there’s an acceptance in her voice that could easily be mistaken for nonchalance.

‘But you’d never know I have it. The only thing is every now and then I’ll just get tired, or my inflammatory ailments peak a bit, and I just get sore. So I’ve just got to pull back until I feel better and then I’m on it again,’ she laughs.

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Mandy and her crew provide more than 50 free meals each week. Photo By Ben Broadwith

And she needs to be, too, because the extreme climate and remote location make for some unique challenges.

‘We have three definitive seasons – we have the dry season, where it’s beautiful, the temperatures are early 30s and that’s as low as it goes. And then you’ve got the buildup time, that’s when the ground temperature in the sun can reach 70 °C, and then you’ve got the wet season.

‘So as far as community gardens go and everyone coming down and gathering, it’s just not like that. It’ll never be like that. There’s not a lot of ongoing help, and because it’s such a transient town we rely a lot on visitors and engaging various groups both locally and scheduled visits from other communities. We learn not to rely on anyone staying around, because it just doesn’t happen.’

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